Fix it up or tear it down? Some people preserve old homes, while others want something new

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12 2013 6:30 a.m. MST

Bob Yapp, left, teaches a window restoration class in 2008.

Provided by Bob Yapp

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HANNIBAL, Mo. — Bob Yapp walks through a house in Hannibal, Mo., in 2008 that was owned by a slumlord. Everybody in the neighborhood wants the abandoned home torn down. Plaster has fallen down. Pigeons are flapping around inside, leaving droppings and fluffy down feathers here and there.

There is no plumbing left. The copper pipes have been purloined. The roof is half caved in.

"And I'm just like a kid in a candy store," Yapp says.

Yapp loves older homes. He loves their history. He loves their craftsmanship. He especially loves surprising people with the facts about older homes — how they are built with precious materials like old growth lumber that are no longer available. He also says fixing up an older home is one of the most green and sustainable things a person could do — especially if people do it right and get good advice from "preservation consultants."

As cities look to shore up declining central neighborhoods and as individuals look for homes in a slowly recovering real estate market, buying and fixing up older and historic homes can make policy, economic and even environmental sense.

But not everybody sees the treasure. Some see money pits.


Yapp, 56, has spent almost four decades helping to rehabilitate older homes. His philosophy is obvious in the names of his Hannibal-based company, Preservation Resources, Inc., and in his school, The Belvedere School for Hands-On Preservation. For him, rehabilitating an older home to an energy-efficient home is about preserving as much as possible — not replacing everything.

Yapp bristles at the rip-it-all-out mentality on some television renovation programs such as PBS's "This Old House" or various fix-em-up-quick shows on HGTV. They are either wasting money by throwing out historic materials or doing work that isn't sustainable, he says.

"Sustainable means doing good work that lasts," Yapp says.

Yapp remembers seeing a house in England that was built in the 1500s. Instead of being gutted and refurbished with new materials, the home still has its original 500-year-old windows and stone roof. It had a few essentials added along the way, such as indoor plumbing and electricity, but everything else had been maintained.

"That's an ethic that we really need to get our arms around in this county," he says.

Yapp was 5 years old in the early 1960s when he first received that ethic from his father — a corporate executive and a weekend old house warrior. One day, as Yapp was helping work on their beautiful 1910 arts and crafts style home in Des Moines, Iowa, his father told him they didn't really "own" the house. He explained that although they were purchasing the house, they had a stewardship responsibility to take good care of it, not for just themselves, but for the future.

"When we do work on this house it is really important that we do good work because the next family that lives here should have the opportunity to enjoy this house as much as we have," he told his son. "If we do shoddy work and we don't do work that lasts then we would not be a principled family and we need to think about that."

Yapp says that lesson stuck with him his whole life.

The way people think about old homes and central city neighborhoods has a lot to do with society's ethics, he says. Americans want everything new and ignore what they already have.

So Yapp can walk into a trashed home and decide in about 15 minutes whether it can be saved. In his imagination, he can see the possibilities and the steps to turn it back into a livable, energy-efficient home with modern amenities.

Tear it down